Nightmare in Clapham

Katherine Mezzacappa

To Clapham in the 1960s, when mental illness was treated very differently.
Clapham in the 1960s
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Our affair ended when eventually I tired of Jim’s reluctance to say that he loved me.  I fell victim instead, if victim is the right word, to something I now know is called the ‘proximity effect’.  Proximity in this case was an engineering student on the second floor of my lodgings off Borough High Street (very cheap in 1962).  Despite having no experience, or perhaps because of it, he turned out to be an exceptional lover.  Astonished, I asked him why?  As a true engineer, he replied, ‘I read books about it.  I wanted to know how it worked.’  It occurred to me then that he had done better than me with my furtive reading of D. H. Lawrence, tipping the library’s newly-legal and much thumbed copy of Lady Chatterley upside down, to see where the pages parted in an echo of Constance’s legs.

But I did not love the engineer, could not kiss him, and so could not tell him that I loved him.  He knew, and to borrow a Lawrentian phrase, ‘he suffered’.

Yet I continued to love Jim in an intermittent way.  It was easier for me to do so because after all I had left him, using the other man as my instrument.  The engineer eventually married someone else (as did Jim), though the marriage did not last, as mine has, and Jim’s too, after a fashion.  But it is Jim’s tragedy I ought to talk about, or rather Edith’s – and their child’s.

I have a delightful husband, an academic at King’s College, and we live in Chalk Farm so his commute to the Strand is tiresome but direct.  He is what you might describe as a hearty man; before we married we chastely holidayed in separate youth hostel dormitories (now we catch the boat-train for France).  I believe George to be faithful, despite his apparent sterility.  I make a point of reciprocating, as I promised when I married him that I would, but I keep my past (such as it is) to myself; he does not know about the engineer, and has only the vaguest idea about Jim, thinking that I know him because of Edith, whereas it is the other way around.

Jim is, or rather was, a school-teacher in Lambeth.  Currently he resides in the Browning Ward at Cane Hill, although occasionally he is isolated – for his own good as well as that of his fellow-patients.  I have not been to visit him there; I was advised not to.  However, I wait outside for Edith when she goes, as she needs help to get home afterwards.

Edith and Jim met at teacher training college, after my affair with him ended. The previous year he had spent in a frozen food factory on the pea inspection belt, having dodged National Service due to a weak chest (he is not tubercular, only thin).  I will be honest that I was not particularly taken with the idea of a fiancé in pea inspection, not because it is not an honest job, but because I like to be with people who feel they are going somewhere of their own volition, rather than sitting waiting for things to come in their direction (like the peas).  Meanwhile I took a respectable graduate job in the John Harvard library and lodged around the corner, waiting for us to get married, which whilst it sounds like the peas too, at least implies a plan.  Anyway, it is what one did back then, and we had been an item by then for more than two years.

The lodgings were what you might call a cut above the rest, not least because Mrs. Meyer had chosen to advertise them on the library noticeboard rather than at the corner shop; in her I recognised a fellow intellectual snob immediately (they were once common in Mitteleuropa, apparently).  We six residents (as Mrs. Meyer liked to call us) had the use of what she called ‘the reading room’, though it was only the small front parlour with her few surviving books (all in German), a lumpy sofa covered with what looked like her old shawls, and its main attraction, a 1954 Pye VT2 10 inch television set (I remember these details only because the engineer found them important). The engineer and I found each other on that sofa, tipped together by its uncertain springs, watching Dixon of Dock Green. Jack Warner spoke reassuringly to us, standing under the lamp at Ealing Police station; I do not remember who turned him off.

But I am digressing, and trying to justify my bad behaviour.  This is the residue of an overly-adapted childhood in which I was morbidly in fear of being found to be in the wrong, even when (as most of the time) I was not.  It is the sort of thing I now counsel my clients about.  I suspect I now saw Jim as a proto-client, or as my Aunt Harriet put it more succinctly, ‘he’s another of your lame ducks’, though she never thought to add that I should examine his family for symptoms of cyclothymic disorder.  It was Aunt Harriet who taught me to be bossy, for she took me over after my mother died and my father, Harriet’s brother, proved incapable of looking after a seven year-old and slunk off in relief to live permanently at his club.

Nobody talked about Jim’s two cousins and the uncle living permanently at High Royd’s Asylum.

Yet they, or people like them, lived in Jim’s head, and sometimes he let them out.  They had names: Uncle Stanley, Cousin Harry, Little Bob.  I still do not know if these were really the names of Jim’s family members, or if they resembled them in any way.  Nor do I know how long they had been there in his brain, like imaginary friends he had failed to discard when he left childhood behind.  Uncle Stanley chewed tobacco and spat in the grate, and had an annoying giggle and a reiterated phrase ‘An’ ‘er sett to me, all of a sudden’.  Cousin Harry was unlucky in love: ‘I s’ll never get over ‘er, nay, I shan’t, never!  Th’daft cow!’ and he’d shake his head from side to side, his hands in his hair.  At first I thought this slighted Yorkshire swain had been invented to amuse me.  Only later did I remember that Jim was in character before I came into the room and surprised him – though he didn’t stop when he saw me.  Perhaps he couldn’t.

Little Bob was not at all funny.  Little Bob was a child who cried relentlessly and made inarticulate sounds like those an infant makes when he is at that experimental babbling stage.  But the timbre of Little Bob’s voice was that of an older child, seven or eight.  And he would not be comforted, though Jim-with-Bob’s-face brought forth real tears.  However it was when Little Bob learned to speak that he became dangerous.

Jim turned out to be a gifted and original teacher.  Like other introverts, he discovered a talent to amuse others, through what his own teachers had earlier described as play-acting (the first impersonations of his incarcerated relatives?) but which was really a means of self-defence.  The crushing boredom of the pea inspection belt had honed this; he said that the best times at that job were when peas coursed down the belt in rippling, remorseless waves.  I imagined his long white poet’s fingers flickering fast as fish in pursuit of the mouldy and misshapen.  The worst times, he said, were when for long minutes no peas at all appeared but the clack and whirr of the belt went relentlessly on.  Or a couple of lonely peas would try to float past only to be set upon by Jim and his fellow-workers, flicked back and forth in a sort of vegetable Subbuteo: Miragreen playing at home against the Kelvedon Wonder (Fourth Division).  It was in pea inspection that Uncle Stanley and Cousin Harry came into their own, stepping into the breach of boredom.  They ‘caught on’ as the saying is, with his colleagues, and thus Jim had to start inventing more and more stories for them.  His old charge-hand, the only one of the pea-inspectors who stayed in touch with Jim and who indeed makes sporadic visits to Cane Hill, told me much later that as Uncle Stanley and Cousin Harry’s adventures became more complicated, these two started to have conversations with people nobody else could see.  This was less funny.

At Wix Primary School, however, Little Bob discovered a talent for story-telling and took over the narration of subjects as diverse as the death of King Harold, the life-cycle of the frog and the seven-times table.  He even took over the repetition and chanting that was the staple of teaching methods in the early 60s (don’t look so supercilious – I bet there is plenty you remember now only because poor dull Miss Thing drilled you that way).  Jim would enter his class-room each morning to the raggedly monotonous sound of twenty-two Lambeth six year-olds intoning “Littull Bob, Littull Bob”.  I know all this as one of George’s most gifted students was one of those children.  He told Edith and me that he will never forget the inspiration of that year with Jim, for it carried him through years of other less competent or downright spiteful teachers and ultimately made it possible for him to gain his scholarship.  He meant this to comfort Edith but I do not think it does.  It only reminds her of the enormity of what has been lost.

Little Bob started weeping only once or twice a day, usually when someone was naughty or got a well-drilled fact wrong, immediately cueing the co-ordinated chant of “Don’t cry, Littull Bob!”  But one day Little Bob’s crying deteriorated into incomprehensible whining babble as the children rustled and fidgeted like birch trees before a storm: “No, Littull Bob!  Stop Littull Bob!” whilst at the back of the room Amy Ventris wailed and next to her Brian Spence covered his face with his fingers, spying Jim’s tears through their grubby trellis.

Any other head teacher, faced with what Miss Owen saw that day when she walked into the uproar of Jim’s class-room, would have rung the police.  Instead she dialled St. Thomas’s, and asked for the duty psychiatrist.  By the time he arrived with his assistants, Jim had begun to return to what resembled acceptable behaviour.  What the man saw, or wished to see, was a conscientious teacher who had become overwrought, probably from overwork, a diagnosis reinforced by Miss Owen’s truthful insistence on Jim as a dedicated and selfless teacher.  The psychiatrist counselled rest.  Nobody spoke to Amy or Brian or any of the others then being comforted in the assembly hall by the games mistress with jugs of weak orange squash and staff-room Garibaldi biscuits.

Jim was brought home to the rooms above the greengrocer’s, and Miss Owen started the hunt for a supply teacher.  Whilst two burly male nurses put him to bed, in the kitchen the psychiatrist sought to reassure an appalled Edith.  ‘He just needs complete rest – peace and quiet’.  Quite how this was to be achieved amidst the thunder of trains rattling past from Victoria to Bromley was not clear.  ‘Hot sweet tea is a good idea’, he went on comfortably.  Edith moved to make it.  ‘No, no, my dear, for your husband, but thank you for your kind offer.  We’ll give him a little sedative and then we’ll be on our way.’

At this point the nurse standing in the doorway spoke up.  The question he asked may well have saved Edith’s life.

‘Is there anyone can come and sit with you?’

I was working the nine to four shift that day but the Head Librarian made no trouble about my getting away early.  Edith and I sat opposite each other across the oil-clothed table, staring at the little tin teapot with the Bakelite handle.

‘I’m expecting’, Edith said quietly.


‘Twelve weeks’, she whispered.

‘Does he…?’  I inclined my head towards the door.

‘No.  I wanted to be sure the baby had taken.’

‘Best not tell him yet.’


‘Want a top up?’

We waited for the kettle to sing again, whilst I tried to imagine a small child tearing through the shabby little apartment, in and out of the austere bedroom Jim and Edith shared, the windowless box-room where Jim kept his books and prepared his lessons (which must perforce become the child’s room), the cramped bathroom with the towel tied round the pipe junction and this Spartan kitchen where the larger saucepans had to live on the top of the cooker as there wasn’t cupboard space for them.

I was not aware of the murmuring at first, between the rattle of trains and sounds of home-going Londoners on the street below.  Somebody must have turned on a radio somewhere, I thought, and though I couldn’t quite make out the words there seemed to be two or three people talking, with increased animation.  ‘Nay!’ I heard someone exclaim.  Unusual to hear a Yorkshire accent on the Home Service in those days.

‘He always wakes like that,’ said Edith.

‘That’s Jim?’ I exclaimed.

‘Sssh!  In a minute he’ll start quoting the Bible.  It’s Revelation, I think, but I can’t be sure.  We’re Quakers back home.’

‘How long has this been going on?’

‘Oh, I don’t know.  A few months maybe?’

A few minutes later the broadcast was interrupted.  There were some muffled thuds, the squeak of some flimsy item of furniture being pushed across linoleum, uncertain steps, and then Jim stood in the doorway.  He stared blankly at me as though he had never seen me before.  Edith twisted round to look at him.

‘We were just having tea.  Would you like some?’ she quavered.

He ignored her, and staring at me, intoned, ‘And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters’.

‘Never mind about seven vials, Jim.  Edith is offering you a cup of tea.  And there’s no need to be personal.’

His voice rose: ‘The Great Whore with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication!’  Then without taking his eyes from me, he lurched forward, pulled open a drawer and grasped a breadknife.  He put his hand on Edith’s head and waved the knife above her as though it were a scimitar, shouting: ‘Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’.

‘Omigod,’ whimpered Edith, ‘he knows!’


All I knew was that the nearest telephone was at the street corner and there was almost always a queue, and besides, Jim was between me and the door.  The sash window however was up, and it turned out Jim had got himself an audience.  Mr. Farrell’s assistant had been sent out of the shop to see what the fuss was about at just the moment I threw the frying-pan in a bid to get attention – he needed four stitches.  The poor young man was so nice about it all afterwards; the Farrells proved to be very kind too.  They regularly send up the choicest vegetables for Edith and her child.

I don’t think Jim even heard the banging on the front door or the crash when it was broken down and trodden under eight police issue boots.  The immediate danger was all over, as the newspapers said, in seconds, with the tiny kitchen stretching and heaving with somewhat musty blue serge (it was a hot day), shiny buttons and police helmets.  Their combined force bursting through from the tunnel of the narrow hallway upset the rickety table, the teapot and the melaware cups.  The first man in seized Jim’s wrist and shook his scimitar free.  Jim writhed in the policeman’s grasp yelling ‘There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’  I could not see that officer’s face, only the red flesh bulging over his too tight collar, for I was cowering in the corner by the coal-scuttle.  But I heard sonorous Belfast accents declaim: WHEN YE SHALL SEE ABRAHAM, AND ISAAC, AND JACOB!’

‘Get thee out, and depart hence, for Herod will kill thee!’ responded Jim, in a nearly normal voice.


‘Tell that fox!  Tell that fox!’ yelled Jim hilariously.  He bent in the middle like a sapling, all the fire gone out of him, and was still laughing when the psychiatrist and the two nurses arrived, the psychiatrist calling out absurdly as he walked over the fallen door, ‘Anyone at home?’

‘Tell that fox!’ turned out to be a very useful quelling phrase at Cane Hill, guaranteed to puncture Jim’s rages.

One of the nurses heaved me up from my corner by the coal-scuttle.  ‘I knew we’d be coming back,’ he murmured.  ‘Psychiatrists don’t know anything, not like Jack and I do.  Now you distract her while we get him downstairs’.


Later, the policemen attempted to put the kitchen to rights.  ‘We’ll send round a woman police officer to get a statement,’ the sergeant told Edith, ‘but you just tell her if you’re not up to it yet.  Get your friend to make you a nice cup of tea, or better still, get yourself some brandy.’

‘There’s a neighbour here with your frying pan,’ said the last policeman to leave.  ‘I’ll see if he knows a joiner.’


 Edith and I sat around that teapot many times after that, as her pregnancy advanced, after Eddie was born, after he started primary school.  It had got dented considerably in the fracas, and its lid didn’t ever fit properly again, which made it not very efficient as a tea pot.  Eddie is a delightful, imaginative little boy, with a sunny temper, and his father’s big grey long-lashed eyes.  I watch his mother as she watches him playing, inventing for his toys voices and personalities, as all children do.  But her gaze is alert. She waits.

Katherine Mezzacappa also writes under the name of Katie Hutton, and is the author of The Gypsy Bride, published by Zaffre.